by Jacob Gershman
Parents can be held liable for what their kids post on Facebook, a Georgia appellate court ruled in a decision that lawyers said marked a legal precedent on the issue of parental responsibility over their children’s online activity.
The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that the parents of a seventh-grade student may be negligent for failing to get their son to delete a fake Facebook profile that allegedly defamed a female classmate.
The trouble started in 2011 when, with the help of another student, the boy constructed a Facebook profile pretending to be the girl. He used a “Fat Face” app to make her look obese and posted profane and sexually explicit comments on the page depicting her as racist and promiscuous, according to court documents.
When the girl found out about it, she told her parents who then complained to the school’s principal. The school punished the boy with two days of in-school suspension and alerted his parents, who grounded him for a week.
But for the next 11 months, according to the appeals court opinion, the page stayed up. It wasn’t deleted until Facebook deactivated the account at the urging of the girl’s parents, the opinion said. The girl’s lawyer says the child’s parents didn’t immediately confront the boy’s parents because their school refused to identify the culprit for confidentiality reasons.
“Given that the false and offensive statements remained on display, and continued to reach readers, for an additional eleven months, we conclude that a jury could find that the [parents’] negligence proximately caused some part of the injury [the girl] sustained from [the boy’s] actions (and inactions),” wrote Judge John J. Ellington in the opinion, which was handed down Oct. 10. He was joined by two other judges on the panel.
The appeals court, though, agreed with a trial court’s dismissal of another part of the lawsuit that sought to hold the parents responsible for allowing the page to be posted in the first place.
Atlanta litigator Edgar S. Mangiafico Jr., who defended the boy’s parents, told Law Blog that the court’s decision was marred by inconsistencies and said he would appeal the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Mr. Mangiafico said when he was researching the question of parental liability with respect to cyberbullying, he couldn’t find any case in which a court found parents negligent for failing to supervise their kids’ computer use.
Natalie Woodward, an Atlanta attorney who represented the girl, said she also believed the outcome was a novel one.
The ruling shows, she told Law Blog, that in “certain circumstances, when what is being said about a child is untrue and once the parents know about it, then liability is triggered.”